Giles Lawrence - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation in Costa Rica
‘Wherever you are in Costa Rica you can guarantee you will be going uphill’ – these wise words was imparted onto me, as I arrived in San Jose, by a rare English-speaking tourist.
Costa Rica’s endless chains of mountains are serious obstacles; however, what he neglected to mention was the immense satisfaction when finally reaching the summit. Not only were the awesome views from atop incredible, but also the daily rewards of working in Barra Honda National Park.
As part of the Conservation team, the uphill struggle was more than worthwhile for seeing the fruition of all our hard work result in a community having re-usable water, or the continued maintenance of the National Park itself.
Why I Chose Conservation in Costa Rica?
I found out about Projects Abroad through a friend and as a Geography undergraduate with an interest in Biology, Costa Rica - one of the most geographically interesting and bio diverse countries in the world, seemed perfect.
The Projects Abroad team were extremely helpful; throughout the application and preparation process you were never more than an email or phone call away from one of their many friendly staff. You even have your own personal page on the website.
The Conservation team within Barra Honda were equally as helpful and during my one month there I felt a real sense of community. You could chat to them about anything and normally this resulted in a discussion of their recent success in the Football World Cup.
Importantly, all the staff were enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable about conservation and their field of research. The chilled out vibe around the camp made getting to know the other volunteers easy and you quickly become good friends with everyone from all around the world and I’ve remained friends with many since leaving. The Costa Rican phrase ‘Pura Vida’ or ‘pure life’ is embraced to the full and there’s always time for a coffee.
Life in Barra Honda National Park
No two days are ever the same in Barra Honda. The day is split into two working activities, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon (or sometimes evening) with a lunch break in the middle. During my time from the end of July to the end of August (the wet season), the focus of the work was on bird surveys, wildlife corridors, bio gardens and bat projects, and many more miscellaneous jobs.
The forest was very green, despite there being a drought at the time, and this made for spectacular views whilst walking along trails. Even the early start at 5:30am and gruelling trek up the near-vertical trails for the bird survey was made enjoyable by the chance to identify vultures and view Macaws circle the deep valley adjacent to the park. The obligatory Reggae music from the chosen member of staff’s old Nokia was also a fond memory of mine.
The bat project was definitely another highlight at the project. Barra Honda is famous for its cave systems, one of which – Terciopelo, we had the chance to explore. These caves are home to thousands of bats. I had never seen bats up close before and they would do their best to wriggle free of the nets.
Fortunately, the staff expertly handled them and they were continuously listing the various cool features of their strangely cute faces, whilst we restrained them in cloth bags to be weighed, measured and counted.
Even the more seemingly dull tasks such as placing large quantities of mixed soil into bin bags to be used for tree planting were made enjoyable by the friendly atmosphere around camp. These tasks also provided much needed rest from the more physical tasks such as trail building and hauling wheelbarrows full of rocks.
One day the full group of 8 of us we were assigned the task of ‘dismantling the bodega’ – the small shed. This was an excuse to unleash what the staff called the ‘Boom Boom Stick’ – essentially a long heavy metal rod which was used to demolish the structure.
Living in the park means accepting the simple fact that insects will always find a way into somewhere you don’t want them. This was no more apparent than when I was sitting down on my bed reading when a cockroach the size of my hand fell onto my face. The scorpion in my suitcase and the tarantula on my bed was part of moments that made me jump!
Aside from the bugs, the rooms were extremely clean and well-kept, as was the dining area, and cleanliness is a cultural tradition wherever you travel in Costa Rica.
Weekend Activities and Events
The weekend excursions were some of my favourite experiences in Costa Rica and I can see why this country has gained a reputation for incredible tourist spots, largely without the mass tourism of many other such destinations.
My favourite trip was to Monteverde; we stayed in a small eco-lodge which was incredibly nice for such a low cost and all in the middle of the cloud forest. Here I had the opportunity to zip-line through the canopy as well as bungee jump off the highest platform in Latin America. The nightlife in the small town was also sampled and the well-known Salsa dancing by Ticos was put on show in the local bar.
The more traditional annual festival in Barra Honda, which Meicel the chef took us too the following weekend, was an all-day party which was great fun and indicative of the wide array of completely unexpected, yet enjoyable events you come across.
Even the experience of planning these trips with the other volunteers was fun and provided a good degree of independence and organisation which I found valuable upon returning home. White-water rafting in Manuel Antonio was yet another thrilling experience. The weekly football match with the staff must also be noted so bring a good pair of trainers because they have some serious skills, even in the middle of a thunderstorm!
My Final Thoughts
It is hard to do justice to such an incredible experience as the one I’ve been fortunate enough to have but I would encourage anyone thinking about Projects Abroad in Costa Rica to take full advantage of the opportunities that arise, and if you do so you’ll find that you won’t ever want to leave.